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Pick of the Week – Finale from Satyagraha for Organ

This selection is particularly personal. I admit to being a pipe organ fan. Many people don't like and/or don't know anything about pipe organs.  There are a lot of reasons for this but to most people in the Western world the sound of a pipe organ means you're in church.

This will all come back to Glass, as it always does, but first a little bit about organs.  The pipe organ, a.k.a. the King of Instruments, had had a long evolution.  Most baroque instruments the kind that Bach played and wrote for are not the big booming Gothic sounding things that we know today. I won't bore you with the function or terminology (pipes, ranks, stops, divisions, swell, couplers, etc) all of which I assure you is fascinating, but rather I wanted to point out the accent-less unemotional sound of the organ in all its forms which attracted me to the instrument; there's something that is at once totally sterile yet stringently musical about the instrument. 

I speak mostly of modern organs which really developed under the Frenchman Aristide CavaillĂ©-Coll, the greatest of all French organ builders (his organ at St. Sulpice is pictured above) who took the tweet-tweet-boop-boop of baroque sounding organs and expanded them to all sorts of symphonic sounds.  Not coincidentally the composers of his era started to take advantage of the new expressive possibilities of the Romantic Organ thus began the greatest period of organ music in my opinion, that of the late-French Romantics of Widor, Vierne, Franck, DuprĂ© and others. 

This was the organ "as orchestra" and the composers began to think of it that way. Indeed, Widor began composing such expansive works for organ that they transcended the title of "Sonata" and became "Symphonies."  Widor himself wrote 10 symphonies for organ including his famous 5th, which features a Toccata that every Philip Glass fan should enjoy:

Widor Toccata

So, the point of interest and commonality of this for Glass followers is the interesting role the "organ" has played in Philip Glass' career.  The Farfisa organ sound of the Philip Glass Ensemble is what many people think of when they think of Philip Glass.  Otherwise, the opening low D of a pipe organ at the beginning of Koyaanisqatsi helped burn this connection between composer and sound palette 30 years ago.  And of course, Einstein on the Beach begins similarly.  The fact then that Glass has composed very little music for pipe organ proper is interesting.

Donald Joyce made a wonderful CD in the 1990s of Glass "Organ Works" which included Dances II and IV from DANCE, Mad Rush, and Contrary Motion.  But those are almost the entirety of organ music in Glass' catalog and not any of it was really written for the pipe organ.  Around the turn of the millennium Glass composed a work for the newly refurbished organ in Melbourne Australia's town hall, but that piece, Voices, also incorporated Narrator, didgeridoo and percussive sticks. 

This is regrettable because one of the great virtues of Philip Glass' music is something that he shares with Bach: the strength of its composition is very frequently instrument neutral.  This means that it depends less on coloration from instrumentation than on a presentation of its structural ideas.  This is why almost all of Glass' and Bach's music succeeds in transcription.  Glass' string quartets work well as piano music just as Bach's concertos would work well as organ music.  This also adds another level of enjoyment for the listener and performers because we come to know the composer's music in his arrangement/orchestration, but not necessarily the only way it can be done.  In other words the music's quality is such that it can inspire many different ways of hearing it:  I think of everything from Stokowski's transcriptions of Bach to Michael Riesman's arrangements of Glass' film scores for solo piano.  It all works! This is all part of why I enjoy hearing Glass on on the "emotional-neutral" pipe organ – it is the best way for me to hear the music it its clearest presentation.

So with that said, here is the pick of the week.  A recording of the finale from Glass' opera Satyagraha, originally for strings and winds, performed by Donald Joyce on pipe organ.  This piece was also recorded by Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, Kevin Bowyer, and recently in 2009 by Andre Canning .  Now for all you organists out there, will someone please transcribe the middle movement passacaglia of Glass' eighth symphony!

Satyagraha (Act III – Conclusion) 1

5 thoughts on “Pick of the Week – Finale from Satyagraha for Organ”

  1. I consider Handel’s organ concertos, op. IV and VII, one of the greatest musical achievement.
    Glass’s music, I think of his Requiem, has also something to share with Handel’s.

  2. thats an interesting connection, I hadnt thought of that. Haydns organ concertos, along with a lot of the music of that period is presented in such small packages. If I remember correctly most of them are 10-15 minutes long. The model for this American Four Seasons concerto is Vivaldis concerti…which actually stand as 4 concertos, each three movements. Of course they are always played together. Glass is one piece, of approximately the same total length of 40 minutes. Its probably the longest of his concertos, and I cant imagine anyone nowadays would accept a 12 minute concerto.

  3. I think its high time Glass composed an Organ symphony, in a similar manner as Poulenc or Saint Seans. Its noticeably lacking in his repertoire. In the Toltec symphony the Organ comes in for a bit of bass boost, to add a little flavor but I think it was an afterthought. Please, Philip, I will personally commission you to do it, give us a wonderful Organ Symphony, and premier it at the Royal Albert Hall, soon!

  4. I really like the Windor Toccata. The Donald Joyce’s Glass Organ Works is another favorite album of mine. I’ll risk rattling the Glass cage by admitting I very much prefer Joyce’s performance of “Dance 4” over Glass’ performance. Joyce does a much tighter performance, Glass’ performance is too loose for my tastes (though still enjoyable).

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